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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 07:36 GMT
China's Wen pledges fairer growth
China's National People's Congress
Delegates have gathered at the Great Hall of the People
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has opened the annual session of the country's legislature with a call for more sustainable economic growth.

Mr Wen said China would do more to cut pollution levels, and increase spending on health and education.

He also pledged to reduce the wealth gap between urban and rural areas.

Mr Wen's speech goes to the heart of the government's pledge to focus more on sustainable development than rapid economic growth at any cost.

But the BBC's Daniel Griffiths in Beijing says that China's politicians have made similar promises in the past, without much success.

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Despite increasing international concern at the country's expanding military, Mr Wen also used his speech to confirm that China would continue to strengthen its armed forces.

The Chinese government announced over the weekend that the nation's military budget would rise by 17.8% in 2007.

A greener China?

The National People's Congress (NPC) is a largely symbolic organisation which meets in full only once a year.

It mainly serves as a rubber stamp to endorse the policies of the ruling Communist Party.

In his two-hour opening address to nearly 3,000 delegates in the Great Hall of the People, Mr Wen delivered a report focused mainly on the government's plans to fine-tune China's economy.

He projected that GDP would grow by about 8% in 2007 - slightly down from the double-digit growth of recent years.

The need to shun growth for growth's sake and to make the nation's economy greener was a recurring theme.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (file photo)
We must safeguard social fairness and justice, and ensure that all of the people share in the fruits of reform and development
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao

"We should... avoid seeking only faster growth and competing for faster growth," Mr Wen said.

He also called for a greater effort to protect the environment, after China missed its targets to improve energy efficiency and pollution levels last year.

"The pattern of economic growth is inefficient. This can be seen most clearly in excessive energy consumption and serious environmental pollution.

"We must attach greater importance to saving energy and resources, protecting the environment and using land intensively," he said.

Private property rights

He also acknowledged that ordinary people, especially in poorer rural areas, were being sacrificed in the rush for riches.

"We must... safeguard social fairness and justice, and ensure that all of the people share in the fruits of reform and development."

Mr Wen said a law ending preferential tax rates for foreign companies would also be passed.

Foreign companies have up until now paid an income tax rate of 15%, compared with 33% for local businesses. Under the new legislation, a tax rate of 25% will apply to all companies.

Another law expected to be passed, but not mentioned in Mr Wen's speech, would give unprecedented protection for private property rights - an important step in the Communist Party's transition to a market economy.

Despite the fact that no actual policies are decided at the 12-day NPC meeting, analysts say it does offer a rare chance to hear about the issues at the top of the government's agenda.

This year's meeting will also be followed closely because it comes before a major Communist Party gathering later in the year, when President Hu Jintao is expected to carry out a reshuffle to further strengthen his position.

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